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All The Ways E! Took Advantage Of Anna Nicole Smith By Producing 'The Anna Nicole Show'

Updated July 22, 2021 81.5k views10 items

What went on behind the scenes of The Anna Nicole Show? By the time the reality program premiered on E! in 2002, the former model and actress Anna Nicole Smith was allegedly overusing prescription pills and had become a tabloid punchline following her short marriage to billionaire J. Howard Marshall; they wed in 1994 when she was 26, and he was 89. After Marshall passed in 1995, Smith became involved in a string of court cases related to her late husband’s estate.

The Anna Nicole Show was a hit for E! when it premiered in 2002, attracting 4 million viewers - the network's biggest audience ever at the time. But ratings slid after the initial broadcast, and the show was canceled during its third season. 

Reality television is not always kind to its stars, and The Anna Nicole Show did not portray its subject in the most flattering light. Smith passed in 2007 from an overdose at the age of 39, several years after the show ended. We will never know for sure how much the rigors of reality television affected her mental health, but dark stories from the set of The Anna Nicole Show suggest E! manipulated and took advantage of Smith during production.

  • Photo: Tinseltown/Shutterstock.com

    Audiences Wanted To See More Of Smith After Her 'E! True Hollywood Story' In 1997

    In 1997, an episode of E! True Hollywood Story profiling Anna Nicole Smith became one of the cable network's highest-rated shows ever. Audiences were intrigued by the saga of the young former Playmate who married a billionaire in his 80s. Smith, herself, did not participate in the episode, which focused on her relationships, substance use, and struggles with weight. 

    TV spectators wanted more, but E! did not know immediately how to cash in on the interest.

  • Photo: MTV

    E! Wanted To Capitalize On The Success Of 'The Osbournes'

    Following the mega success of MTV's The Osbournes, E! wanted to capitalize on the idea of a reality show that gave TV audiences the opportunity to see what celebrities were like in their everyday lives. E! figured they could turn Smith's troubled life into a hit, just as MTV had done with Ozzy Osbourne and his family. Mark Sonnenberg, E!’s executive vice president of entertainment at the time, explained the channel's rationale: 

    When The Osbournes came along, it was a no-brainer: Let’s just put the cameras on [Anna Nicole Smith] and follow her around. There’s a circus atmosphere that will attract people. Here’s a single mother who’s been struggling to make it while taking on the rich and powerful to make a better life for her and her son. She’s also a grieving widow. When you watch and spend time with her, she’s very captivating.

  • Photo: E!

    E!'s Ad Campaign For The Show Made Light Of Smith's Troubles 

    E!'s advertising campaign for The Anna Nicole Show included the tagline, "It's not supposed to be funny - it just is!" The cover of the DVD for the show's first season features the same tagline, along with the phrase, "America's Guiltiest Pleasure." However, many saw the show as sad.

    Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly said, "The thing is, it’s no joke. In [presenting] a barely coherent Anna Nicole Smith, E! is doing something that comes pretty close to being [highly objectionable]."

  • One Critic Called The Show A 'Human Train Wreck' 

    Video: YouTube

    When E! premiered The Anna Nicole Show on Aug. 4, 2002, many people were already familiar with the long-running saga of the former model who married a much older billionaire, oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall. He passed less than two years after they tied the knot. The series was supposed to center on Smith doing everyday things like taking driving lessons or buying a house. The pilot episode introduced TV audiences to Smith's lawyer/friend Howard K. Stern and her assistant Kim Walther, who had purple hair and a tattoo of Smith's face. 

    However, cameras focused on Smith's figure and her clothing, which often didn't seem to fit. She almost always appeared sedated and was shown stumbling around. 

    Entertainment Weekly columnist Ken Tucker, in his review of the premiere episode, called the series "a human train wreck." He also said the show's creators should have changed the lyrics of the opening theme song from "you're so outrageous" to "you're so sad." According to Tucker, the premiere, along with the preceding E! True Hollywood Story, made Smith "an unhappy figure of E! ridicule."

    Caryn James, in her New York Times review, called The Anna Nicole Show a "cruel joke of a reality series." She described the show in unflattering terms: "Appealing to the car-wreck mentality that draws viewers to watch other peoples' lives in shambles, The Anna Nicole Show is in the forefront of the latest wave of reality programs, freak shows that are a step below celebrity boxing."